The uproar over President Trump’s recent pardon of Scooter Libby likely sent many Americans to the internet to read up on the obscure former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. From most media sources, they learned Libby was convicted of obstruction of justice connected with a probe into the planning and aftermath of the Iraq war and that Trump’s action is somehow a shot across the bow of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
As usual, major media misses the real story. Scooter Libby was an important player in an epic saga stemming from conflicts that have shaped American politics for nearly two decades.
A searching review reveals Libby was an innocent man railroaded by an unscrupulous prosecutor. His case arose from a public fraud perpetrated by a husband and wife team of leftist government employees. The media/Left viciously promoted the fiction of Libby’s guilt, because he was key to their argument that George Bush lied to justify the Gulf War. George Bush was weak and wobbly in his treatment of Libby. Donald Trump’s action sets right a wrong, and confronts us with challenging questions about effectiveness and political style.
Essential Background: In summer 2003, the US had defeated Iraq’s Army, was moving to secure the country, but, had not located suspected facilities with weapons of mass destruction. The issue was becoming controversial and embarrassing for the administration.
In June, retired ambassador Joe Wilson wrote a bombshell column in the New York Times. Wilson referenced claims George Bush had made in the State of the Union earlier that year to support action against Iraq. Bush cited a British intelligence report that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger. Wilson said that claim was wrong; he personally had debunked it. Wilson claimed the CIA had dispatched him to Niger to determine whether there was any uranium trade with Iraq. He interviewed a number of business and government officials and concluded no such commerce was occurring or contemplated. Wilson charged Bush relied on discredited information to justify the war.
Big media grabbed the story like a chart-topping song, playing it loudly and endlessly. It was tremendously embarrassing for the administration. Later that month, syndicated columnist Robert Novak wrote that Wilson had been recommended for the mission by his wife, Valerie Plame, who worked for the CIA. Plame turns out to have been at least administratively under cover, though she had held a DC desk job for several years.
The political storm became a tornado. Democrat politicians and media howled the administration had outed Plame and ruined her career to punish Wilson for his criticism. Impeachment talk surged. Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself, and appointed Illinois US Attorney Patrick Fizgerald as Special Counsel. Fitzgerald waged a scorched earth campaign pointed primarily at VP Cheney who many saw as the driving force behind aggressive action in Iraq.
Fitzgerald pressed the New York Times’ Judith Miller, a prominent reporter on Iraq before and during the war, to reveal her sources within the administration. Miller asserted reporter’s privilege and refused. Fitzgerald took the extraordinary step of seeking a contempt order and jail sentence against Miller until she complied. Miller was held 85 days. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald repeatedly interrogated Libby, who turned out to be Miller’s primary source, although, Novak, not she, had written the article naming Plame. Based on differences between Libby’s and Miller’s recollections of their discussions, Fitzgerald charged Libby with perjury and obstruction of justice, but not with leaking Plame’s identity. A Washington DC jury convicted Libby of both charges.
President Bush commuted Libby’s sentence, but did not grant him a pardon. The trail didn’t reach to the White House or even identify a leaker. But, opponents of the administration now had a scalp to crown their anti-Bush narrative. To the degree the public remembers the case at all, the narrative is Bush lied America into war and wrecked a critic’s career in retaliation.
That is a vicious distortion of the truth. Everything about the story and recollection is wrong. First, Libby was not the source for Novak’s article. Richard Armitage, State Department employee and aide to Colin Powell was. He admitted it on national TV and Fitzgerald knew it from the early days of his investigation. In interview on CBS, Armitage claimed responsibility, said he “screwed up,” and offered that as an apology to Plame and Wilson. Further, Armitage had no intent to harm Plame, not even realizing her identity was classified. He was simply explaining to Novak how it was that Wilson came to be selected for the mission.
There is no honorable reason Fitzgerald--tasked with finding the leaker of a CIA agent’s identity—looked past the actual leaker to target someone else. The likely explanation is that the story would have stopped rather innocently with Armitage whose boss was the widely admired Powell. But, the ambitious Fitzgerald was gunning for the broadly vilified Cheney and a conspiracy to harm Wilson and Plame. Libby’s lawyer said Fitzgerald offered to drop all charges against Libby if he would offer information against Cheney. Libby said there was none, and he paid a dear price.
The travesty is worse than that. Wilson’s trip was a sham form the start. It was never realistic that a retired diplomat interviewing the locals was the best way to ferret out evidence of illicit arms trade or negotiations. Further, Wilson misrepresented the information he received. A Senate Intelligence report concluded Wilson and Plame misled the public and investigators about the genesis and findings of Wilson’s trip. The information he received actually marginally supported reports of Iraqi interest in uranium from Niger.
Moreover, Judith Miller later recanted her testimony in the Libby trial. She said Fitzgerald had withheld from her some of her notes of conversations with Libby, and caused her to recall minor differences with Libby as more material than they really were. Based on her testimony, the Washington DC Bar reinstated Libby’s law license concluding he was probably innocent.
The truth of the Libby case is a well kept secret in American history. However, perhaps in a brief moment of shame, the Washington Post did quietly admit the essentials in a 2006 editorial Armitage, not Libby was the source for the story, and Joe Wilson had only himself to blame for the events that brought his wife to prominent notice.
George Bush did not acquit himself well in these events. It was plain that Fitzgerald had let the actual leaker skate in order to try to shoot game closer to the President and Vice President. But Bush apparently subscribed to the vision of Karl Rove who seemed to believe answering false attacks from the media was beneath the president’s office. For long months under constant barrage, Bush neither defended his original statement in the State of the Union, answered his critics about the mysteriously absent weapons, or pardoned Libby in a miscarriage of justice. Bush’s reticence had a demoralizing effect on Republicans who watched an administration under siege refuse to speak in its own defense. It undoubtedly played a role in the 2008 elections.
A decade later, President Trump restored a delayed piece of justice by granting Libby his pardon. President’s Trump’s unique manner of full throated opposition to criticism also certainly reflects a different approach to presidential purpose and posturing. One wonders if there might be a stance somewhere between the supine Bush and the belligerent Trump. But as between the two, Trump has done justice where Bush did not.